Through the lens of familiarity

April 27, 2018

Connor McDonald plays wounded returned soldier Steve in sell-out STAG show Dookie The Musical.

This week we bowed our heads once again and thought about the cost of war.

About the victories and failures that have been paid for quickly in blood, followed by decades of tears and recovery.

About wars that extinguished whole generations and left the survivors to wonder why.

Wars that have been fought over land and money, and wars that are still being fought over culture and gender.

Anzac Day provides a moment of stillness to ponder a few of these things and in that sense it is a positive part of Australian culture.

But when it becomes a lightning rod for the extreme right, for racists, homophobes and flag-waving nationalists, it threatens to destroy the national culture it helped build.

If you don’t think Anzac attracts these sorts of people then take a moment to reflect on the reaction to Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s ill-considered tweet last year.

Or the vituperative reaction to Catherine Deveny’s more deliberately offensive social media post yesterday.

Anzac is a complex thing.

We talk of Anzac spirit, birth of a nation, heroic sacrifice, duty and moral righteousness.

Alongside this, we talk of broken bodies and minds, senseless slaughter and endless horror.

Interestingly the former sentiments are generally expressed by those who have never gone to war.

The latter are the feelings of old soldiers.

A lot of this stuff was on show on Anzac night during the premiere of Shepparton Theatre Arts Group’s Dookie The Musical.

The much-anticipated original musical, by Shepparton writer John Head and musician Wade Gregory, drew a capacity crowd to Mooroopna’s WestSide Performing Arts Centre.

It was a warm and delightful performance peopled with the familiarity of characters we all know in small country towns — the sassy cafe owner, the bossy CWA lady, the grumpy farmer, the eccentric vicar, larrikins and lovers.

Into this frothy scenario, the troubling issues of post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism and racism are introduced.

We see the cost of war played out on a human scale that we can recognise — the angry war veteran father and his shunned son, the damaged returned soldier and the newly arrived migrant, also scarred by violence and terror.

Remarkably, this loaded ship is steered with a lightness and compassion that makes it accessible to the ordinary people it reflects.

At show’s end there was a palpable sense of joy mixed with reflection as the audience embraced the trials and virtues of small-town country life.

This is what community theatre can do so powerfully — tell the comforting fireside stories that people want to hear, set against the darker forest of a wider, troubled world.

Dookie The Musical does all this through the lens of familiarity.

So the complex issues of Anzac are distilled and made clearer through ordinary lives, a gentle musical score, and a large dollop of humour.

At this point I would encourage you all to go and buy tickets — but there’s no point.

The show is a sell-out.

Which is another example of what happens in country towns — word travels fast.

John Lewis is chief of staff at The News.

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